NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Gasoline credit cards have an "optics" problem with consumer advocates — and consumers: They aren't typically good deals.

"They tend to charge higher interest rates and offer minimal rewards and paltry sign-up bonuses," according to a report from CreditCards.com that points out the following "downsides" to gas credit cards:

  • Excessive rates: An "average APR of 24%, far above the 15% for general-purpose cards."
  • Meager rewards: Most gas cards offer a 10-cent discount per gallon. "That's a decent return (about 4% at current gas prices). But when gas prices rise, that percentage will decline. And it's already less rewarding than other options."
  • Weak bonuses: There is a legitimate shortage of gas cards that provide sign-up bonuses, and those that do don't offer much. "A few extra cents off per gallon for the first 60 or 90 days is common. That contrasts sharply with general-purpose credit cards that offer lucrative sign-up bonuses that can be worth hundreds of dollars."
  • Plenty of red tape: Gas cards come with plenty of hoops to jump through. "Minimum spending thresholds, maximum limits, qualified purchases and tiered rewards levels are common among gas cards. They cut into the benefits and cause headaches for consumers."

"Gas cards are the dull, boring sedans of the credit card world," says Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst. "They're stuck in the slow lane, destined never to be flashy."

Even if they're not all the poor performers CreditCard.com warns against, there is plenty of room for improvement.

The report does point out some upsides — the cards offer instant approval and are easier to get than major bank credit cards, a boon to consumers with sketchy credit.

The report offers three gas cards that offer more pros than cons:

  • Chase Freedom: 5% back on gas purchases this summer (one of its rotating 5% quarterly categories), a $100 sign-up bonus and no annual fee.
  • BankAmericard Cash Rewards: 3% back on gas purchases throughout the year, a $100 sign-up bonus and no annual fee.
  • Capital One Venture Rewards: Two miles per dollar spent anywhere, plus a 40,000-mile sign-up bonus (worth $400) and no annual fee for the first year.

Even those deals may not be enough for consumers.

"I've used gasoline credit cards for decades and still carry those issued by Citgo, ExxonMobil, Gulf and Sunoco,says Ben Marvin, media relations director at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. To be honest, I've been wondering why I still use them when they offer no real advantage." Marvin notes that all gasoline dealers accept general purpose credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard, and those earn customers benefits such as reward points or statement credits. "I get nothing from the gasoline cards — not even a cash price at those filling stations that post separate prices for cash and credit transactions."

While not thrilled about their gas cards, other consumers do see some value, depending on the calendar. "I accepted a gasoline card offer a few years ago from British Petroleum at the height of gas prices, when fuel was over $4 a gallon and climbing," says Rona Simmons, a writer and author in Cummings, Ga. "The discounts were initially quite generous, but, as I expected, BP cut back about 12 months into the program. I hung on to my card though, and the card does offer deeper discounts on a certain day of the month."

Some consumers are opting for general credit cards with gas-based rewards provisions. That's the case with Mark Schroeder, who operates the Consumer's Edge personal savings advice blog.

"I hold the Discover Card, which does have a rotating 5% cash-back-on-gas promotion, and I also have an Amex Blue Cash Card, which earns a 2% rebate year-round," Schroeder says. "They are not technically gas cards, per se, because they aren't branded as such, but I do get a temporary benefit from gasoline discounts."

As Schroeder points out, consumers who drive the most stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of gasoline credit cards. "It really looks like one's gas purchasing habits come into play with branded cards," he says. Maybe that will be the savings grace for the much-maligned gasoline credit card — don't leave home without it, but don't expect too much from it.

— Written by Brian O'Connell for MainStreet